COVID-19: Kendu leaf procurement hits roadblock in Odisha

State forest officials deter Kalahandi district's village to procure kendu leaves through gram sabha; ;
Tribals stacking Kendu leaves in bundles. Credit: Priya Ranjan Sahu
Tribals stacking Kendu leaves in bundles. Credit: Priya Ranjan Sahu

Residents of Dhanarpur village in Odisha’s Kalahandi district have hit a roadblock in procuring kendu leaves through gram sabhas — one of the most prominent minor forest produce (MFP) in the state.  

The Odisha government granted relaxation for collection and harvest of MFPs when the nationwide lockdown was extended for the second time in mid-April to curb the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak.

The inordinate delay in procurement by government agencies, however, prompted them to look for other options.

More than 10 villages of Kalahandi decided to procure kendu leaves through gram sabha, which is in line with the provisions of the The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA).

The villagers had been demanding the same for long as the FRA allowed the gram sabha to issue transit permits for trade and transportation of kendu leaves.  

“Many of us have not received payment and bonus for a year,” a kendu leaf plucker said.

The gram sabha bought 0.1 million bundles of kendu leaves worth Rs 1.30 lakh from pluckers, which was more than the government rate of Rs 100 per 100 bundles, according to Surendra Nayak, village leader of Dhanarpur.  But the forest officials from Jaipatna forest range soon asked the villagers to stop procuring the leaves through gram sabha and deposit the bundles in the nearby government depot, added Nayak.

“They threatened us with arrest if we continued to procure kendu leaves through gram sabhas,” Nayak said.

Over 0.8 million pluckers, 20,650 binders and 17,860 temporary labourers are engaged in kendu leaf trade, according to state figures.

The Scheduled Tribe and Schedule Caste development department secretary Ranjana Chopra on April 20 sent a communication to collectors and superintendents of 13 districts to ensure free movement of transport of MFP.

“The COVID-19 lockdown coincided with the peak season for collection and harvesting of MFPs. It has become imperative on our part to initiate precautionary measures so as to protect them as well as their livelihood,” she said.

Dharanpur comprises 300 households of which 200 belong to gond Adivasis, who come under Scheduled Tribes. Rest of the households belong to Scheduled Castes and Other Backward Classes. Almost all families depend on KL for their livelihood.

The decision to procure and trade kendu leaves through gram sabha was also influenced by the success of six villages which independently procure and trade these leaves and for which each tribal family earned Rs 4,000-Rs 9,000.  

In 2017, the six village of Golamunda block comprising Kanakpur, Kalipur, Kasturapadar, Jamjharan, Khasiguda and Jamgudabahali got the right to KL procurement, trade and transport through gram sabha under FRA after a prolonged struggle.

It meant that the forest department and Odisha Kendu Leaf Corporation could no longer control the trade in the six villages; the gram sabhas could issue transit permits for its trade and transportation.

Since then, the state government has not extended the same right to any other village in 13 districts, even though it is mandated by the FRA.

Forest rights activist Sudhansu Deo said there had been an inordinate delay due to bureaucratic hurdles in granting power to gram sabhas.

“Such decentralisation will not only help tribals who draw their sustenance from MFP, but also make them self-reliant. The government should take immediate steps in this regard in view of COVID-19 to protect their livelihood,” he said.    

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